Perez Hilton is hardly a poster boy for radical feminism, or even basic empathy. This is a man who’s happily linked to invasive “upskirt” photos of Miley Cyrus; disrespected the privacy of celebrities who’ve opted to stay in the closet; and generally adopted an attitude towards famous people akin to the one Mean Girls‘ insecure teens reserved for the targets of their “Burn Book,” except Hilton’s blog isn’t satire. All the more reason, then, to take note of Hilton’s decision to remove nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and Victoria Justice from his site, plus apologize for posting them in the first place.
The hacking and subsequent mass circulation of these photos — calling them a “leak” isn’t just wrong; it erases the terrifying lengths these people went to in order to ogle other human beings’ naked bodies — is a display of the very worst of the Internet, male entitlement, and the ways in which the former enables the latter. Over the weekend, many writers eloquently pointed out the direct line from our entrenched culture of misogyny and violating women’s bodies to this particularly high-profile example of it, chief among them noted Bad Feminist Roxane Gay. And it’s not just the hacking itself that shows off the nastiness of angry, alienated men in packs: just look at the responses to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s tweets calling out her hackers.
There’s a reason why women often joke about this stuff in the form of one-liners about fedoras and Tumblrs mocking online dating profiles. The bullshit’s just too much to be faced head-on, without humor, until something happens of such scale that even misandrist cracks don’t work anymore.
Luckily, Lawrence and Winstead’s exposure (and Hope Solo’s, and Lizzy Caplan’s, and many, many others’) has also provoked a response that’s unprecedented in its near-universal condemnation of the hackers and sympathy towards their victims. Perhaps the thinnest of silver linings on a giant black storm cloud, it’s nonetheless an important step away from the popular idea that any evidence of sexuality constitutes “asking for” public humiliation. As the cesspool of online abuse remains deeper than ever, there’s some evidence that mainstream culture is edging further away from the attitudes that tacitly encourage it.
The first major celebrity “scandal” I remember paying attention to was Paris Hilton’s infamous sex tape, released without her consent (and for a considerable profit) by her ex-boyfriend. At the time, no one mentioned revenge porn. No one pointed out that a woman in her 20s having sex is hardly unusual, and asked why we were acting like Paris did something wrong. No one blinked at the countless punchlines and parodies. No one, in short, saw the violation of Paris Hilton’s basic right to have her private life remain private as particularly significant — at least, not compared to the shame she ought to feel at being caught in the act of having sex.
In the decade since then, the public’s response to celebrity sex tapes and nude photos has followed a similar, sadly predictable pattern. Vanessa Hudgens (who’s going through this for the second time) in 2007; Scarlett Johansson (ditto) in 2011; and Ciara in 2012 all found their pictures passed around more or less without comment from non-gossip-centric media. The semantics were telling: the photos were “leaked,” not “stolen” or “hacked,” and their distribution was called a “scandal” without incident. Compare that to recent posts clarifying why this round of images isn’t a “scandal” — it’s a sex crime.
Maybe it took the sheer magnitude of this particular sex crime for human decency to reach the likes of Perez Hilton. Maybe it took the normalization of sexting for us to see ourselves in Jennifer Lawrence (remember that Aziz Ansari bit where he asks his audience to clap if they’ve ever received a dick pic and the whole theater applauded? Enthusiastically?). And maybe it’s because we’re beginning to recognize that when a woman takes nude photos with her partner — or by herself, or with anyone else — stores them on her phone and/or deletes them, and then finds said photos plastered across the Internet by some anonymous Peeping Redditor, she’s not the one who’s crossed a line.
Jennifer Lawrence and Mary Elizabeth Winstead deserve our sympathy, and their hackers deserve our outrage. As seemingly simple as this moral judgment may be, it’s taken a shockingly long time to arrive at in our world of celebrities, smartphones, and increasingly compromised privacy. Hopefully, the shift in blame from women to those who violate them is a permanent one.